But more than 100 years later, this ubiq­ui­tous for­mal en­sem­ble is un­der­go­ing an iden­tity cri­sis.

Esquire (Singapore) - - COVER STORY - Words by josh sims

THEY WOULD NOT LET Dabiz Munoz into the club. In Spain, Munoz—one of the few chefs in the world with three Miche­lin stars—is con­stantly stopped in the street for a photo. But in Lon­don, in 2018, he was not al­lowed into a club for a meet­ing with a fi­nancier. “Why? They said it was be­cause I was not dressed ap­pro­pri­ately,” chuck­les Munoz, who favours min­i­mal­ist black sports­wear and has a spon­sor­ship deal with Nike. How did he in­ter­pret that? Sim­ple. He wasn’t wear­ing a suit.

When one con­sid­ers how menswear has been re­shaped over the last 20 years, it seems re­mark­able that such an at­ti­tude still ex­ists: that, just to en­ter Lon­don’s RAC Club, for ex­am­ple, you must wear a suit—but the club does al­low its mem­bers to dis­pense with a tie over the sum­mer months, though only after 4pm. So how did the suit be­gin its slip­pery slide down the pop­u­lar­ity polls? Firstly, there’s been a break­down in work­place dress codes, it­self mir­ror­ing a break­down in con­ven­tional work­place hi­er­ar­chies. A study re­leased ear­lier this year re­vealed that just one in 10 Bri­tish work­ers wears a suit to work, with three-quar­ters of them now dress­ing down not just on Fri­days, but ev­ery day. And they pre­fer it that way: it’s cheaper, more com­fort­able and cre­ates a more re­laxed work­ing at­mos­phere. Over 40 per­cent said the suit no longer had a place in the of­fice—un­sur­pris­ingly, given a fun­da­men­tal shift at the heart of work in the 21st cen­tury to­wards free­lanc­ing, the gig econ­omy, a blur­ring of work and leisure time and even big busi­nesses want­ing to present a more ap­proach­able im­age.

Cer­tainly, fol­low­ing the lead of the boom, the rise of the start-up and greater en­trepreneuri­al­ism, the suit is no longer ex­pected at­tire out­side of all but the most con­ser­va­tive of ca­reers. In­deed, in some quar­ters it’s pos­i­tively frowned on— sym­bolic of stuffi­ness and a lack of youth­ful dy­namism. How of­ten was Steve Jobs ever seen in a suit? Or Mark Zucker­berg? Or Richard Bran­son? Clearly, at some point in time, the suit lost its po­tency as a sym­bol of man­hood.

No won­der, five years ago, pre­cisely in a bid to cater to th­ese types of busi­ness­peo­ple, even the in­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of Di­rec­tors—which for a cen­tury has re­quired its mem­bers to wear ‘busi­ness at­tire’—fi­nally gave in. It in­tro­duced a ‘ smart ca­sual’ dress code al­low­ing jeans and shorts but noth­ing “in­de­cent” as a spokesper­son put it. “So no Che Gue­vara T-shirts,” they added. The G8 meet­ing of world lead­ers has also en­cour­aged more dress­ing down in a bid to fos­ter a more ‘ in­ti­mate and in­for­mal’ at­mos­phere. Cor­po­rate mono­liths JP Mor­gan and PwC have fol­lowed.

Se­condly, there has been the in­flu­ence of streetwear—once an age-brack­eted niche, now, in ef­fect, since its pioneers have grown up and won po­si­tions of power, ac­count­ing for the ma­jor­ity of menswear; and then this has been fol­lowed by the coup de grace to for­mal­ity that has come in the guise of ath­leisure: the whole­sale ap­pro­pri­a­tion of sports­wear—func­tional, com­fort­able, pro­gres­sive—as ev­ery­day wear. That’s not just for the kid in a hoodie and sweat­pants. That’s for the CEO in his sim­ple sep­a­rates made from the kind of tech­ni­cal fab­rics once re­served for triath­letes and moun­tain climbers.

And then there has been a more over-arch­ing so­cial trend: call it nar­cis­sism or selfie cul­ture, a re­sponse to the end­less con­sumer choice af­forded by the In­ter­net, or a break down in the iden­tity once af­forded by com­mu­nity, pol­i­tics or the (ever more frag­mented) work­place—but we’re all ram­pant in­di­vid­u­al­ists now, seek­ing to ex­press that fact by any means nec­es­sary. The suit—as epit­o­mised by Gre­gory Peck’s char­ac­ter in the 1956 film The Man in the Grey Flan­nel Suit, which even then was de­scribed by Ad­lai Steven­son as cap­tur­ing a “cri­sis in the western world... col­lec­tivism col­lid­ing with in­di­vid­u­al­ism”— em­bod­ies con­form­ity.

Just to be called ‘a suit’—to be as­so­ci­ated with the per­ceived ne­ces­sity of wear­ing one—is to be ranked among the end­less, un­cool worker bee no­bod­ies, qui­etly des­per­ate to be some­bod­ies. The very word ‘suit’ stems from the Latin root ‘se­quer’, mean­ing ‘to fol­low’. No won­der no­body wants to wear one any­more—and that’s be­fore cli­mate change or the killer hu­mid­ity of places like Sin­ga­pore.

Or do they? “I think there will al­ways be some kind of oc­ca­sion for the struc­tured suit be­cause peo­ple will al­ways love the idea of dress­ing up for an event, of en­joy­ing the op­por­tu­nity to re­ally run with that for­mal­ity,” ar­gues Toby Lamb, brand di­rec­tor of Richard James, a com­pany that helped save the tai­lored suit when it launched in 1992, in­tro­duc­ing more colour and piz­zazz to what had be­come very staid in­deed, giv­ing it rel­e­vance once again. “But, the ap­peal of that for­mal aes­thetic aside, there will be a re­quire­ment to change again.”

He cites the fact that, while a tra­di­tional suit re­mains its best­seller—for the time-be­ing— Richard James is mov­ing to­wards of­fer­ing suits with a soft­ness and light­ness to them, in large part a prod­uct of the choice of cloths, with mills now mak­ing more wo­ven blends to pro­vide a more slouchy, cardigan-like ease, with more nat­u­ral stretch but also shape re­ten­tion and even wa­ter re­pel­lency. A jacket now is as likely to come in a jersey as a flan­nel. “So we can re­tain a for­mal aes­thetic but use fab­rics with an in-built per­for­mance that wasn’t there not that long ago,” ex­plains Lamb. “And per­haps those per­for­mance qual­i­ties are what the suit needs to have now—for­mal­ity with in-built tech­nol­ogy.”

It’s time, in other words, for Suit 2.0—a ver­sion for a gen­er­a­tion that not only cares about ease, but, per­haps more im­por­tantly, cares about the way it looks. Check out the red car­pet, a spe­cial oc­ca­sion for sure. The suit is still there but not in a form that would cut it in any but the most style-con­scious of board­rooms: there’s a Fer­rag­amo suit in pow­der pink, a Cerutti dou­ble-breasted num­ber in bold for­est green; an au­tumn/win­ter 2018 Paul Smith style in a crushed vel­vet, an av­o­cado Prada suit with a big black stripe run­ning up the in­side leg, a Brunello Cucinelli one that’s at least half way round the cir­cuit to be­com­ing a track suit. About the only thing that makes them suits, as the suit has been known for much of the 20th cen­tury, is that both jacket and trousers go together. Mostly. This is the suit as a means to ex­press per­son­al­ity too, rather than be sub­sumed to the char­coal-clad crowd.

In­deed, big­ger pic­ture, th­ese times in which the suit is strug­gling to find its place might be an op­por­tu­nity to ex­am­ine ex­actly what the suit is for; and what the fun­da­men­tals of a suit amount to. Does the suit have to con­form to the body? Does the suit have to have cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics to still be de­fined as such?

As Vogue has noted, over re­cent sea­sons up-and-com­ing brands the likes of Abasi Ros­bor­ough, N Hooly­wood and Pub­lic School have pro­duced suits with Vel­cro clo­sures, or with raglan sleeves, or with pullover jack­ets, or out of ny­lon. On the cat­walks, the suit is still there, but in­creas­ingly in one of two modes—de­cid­edly ca­su­alised or, as fash­ion tends to­wards of course, in an avant-garde mode. Ba­len­ci­aga has played with the suit’s con­ven­tional pro­por­tions, for ex­am­ple, while Comme des Gar­cons has made its suits asym­met­ric; while brands the likes of Burberry, Bal­main, Gucci and Bot­tega have mixed menswear into their women’s col­lec­tion shows—an in­di­ca­tion per­haps of how dis­tinctly male at­tire the likes of the suit may be on the wane.

“The suit has to change be­cause so many of us have a dif­fer­ent life­style now, and the need to dress quite so for­mally is only a very oc­ca­sional thing,” says menswear de­signer Oliver Spencer. “I think men can still take plea­sure in dress­ing up to go out, but even then the suit we wear is a dif­fer­ent kind of thing: it’s less stuffy, more colour­ful, more pat­terned, more in­ter­est­ing all round.

Yes, it’s a suit, but it’s not the kind of suit that, say, our grand­par­ents would read­ily recog­nise as be­ing such.”

Even at a com­pany the likes of Gieves & Hawkes—of No. 1 Sav­ile Row, a pi­o­neer of tai­lor­ing— there are winds of change. For spring/sum­mer 2019 it’s in­tro­duc­ing what it calls its light­weight struc­ture—ba­si­cally a strip­ping out of all the pad­ding and weight of a tra­di­tional English suit, and us­ing stretch cloths. The re­sult, as John Har­ri­son, Gieves & Hawkes’ cre­ative di­rec­tor, puts it, “looks just the same as one of our more tra­di­tional suits, but is much eas­ier to wear and feels more com­fort­able. But still looks cool”.

What’s more, Har­ri­son sus­pects that it’s the first small step in what will mir­ror a sea change in at­ti­tudes to the suit over the next two to three decades. “The fact is that I just can’t imag­ine my teenage sons ever want­ing to wear—or re­ally need­ing to wear—that kind of tra­di­tional tai­lor­ing,” he says. “That stan­dard grey shark­skin suit? It’s just go­ing to drift away.”

So does that mark the be­gin­ning of the end of the suit, as has been much her­alded over re­cent years? Not quite. Tai­lor­ing houses re­port that while there’s a di­min­ish­ing need to wear a suit in the work­place now, there is an in­creased de­mand to wear one for go­ing out. “It’s as if there’s a recog­ni­tion that it’s a tra­di­tion that we don’t quite want to lose yet,” sug­gests Har­ri­son. And, he ar­gues, there will al­ways be a de­mand for Sav­ile Row-style be­spoke tai­lor­ing, even if that be­comes in­creas­ingly niche, in­creas­ingly about per­son­al­i­sa­tion and cus­tomi­sa­tion and a trainspot­ter-like love of the craft— much as is hap­pen­ing with for­mal, Goodyear-welted footwear in the era of the sneaker.

But the suit it­self might change so much that at least the idea of the suit—a gar­ment that might be loosely de­fined as one in which the top and bot­tom halves sit well together, that chimes with cer­tain, also chang­ing so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions—sur­vives. Har­ri­son pre­dicts that the suit will be­come much more mod­u­lar, much more stream­lined—per­haps thermo-reg­u­lat­ing, com­fort­able, min­i­mal­is­tic but still, in its own way, smart.

“It’s not quite Star Trek yet, but you can see a time when the suit will have to be reimag­ined,” says Har­ri­son. “Why do suits have a lapel, for ex­am­ple? We just don’t need that level of sar­to­rial fi­nesse any­more. Yes, it is quite space-age, but you can see that strip­ping back of the form of the suit hap­pen­ing al­ready. And cer­tainly if I was to learn tai­lor­ing again I’d be tai­lor­ing in tech­ni­cal cloths. The re­sult might still have a beau­ti­ful but­ton­hole, it would still have the craft, but it would be a much more mod­ern prod­uct. And there’s no rea­son why his­toric com­pa­nies the likes of Gieves & Hawkes can’t adapt to that. There’s no rea­son why they can’t tai­lor in Ly­cra, for ex­am­ple. The suit can move on.”

If only, per­haps, to keep up mem­ber­ship at the type of Lon­don club that re­fused Munoz en­try. “Well, clubs are al­ready mak­ing changes in re­la­tion to dress codes and I think those that haven’t prob­a­bly never will,” says Rupert Wes­son, acad­emy di­rec­tor for De­brett’s, an au­thor­ity on Bri­tish eti­quette, dress and so­cial skills. “The idea of the suit seems to have been broad­en­ing out for decades—it used to mean a three-piece worn with very shiny shoes, and now it’s maybe just match­ing sep­a­rates. And even events one used to have to wear a suit to have been hol­lowed out. Clearly the suit is in a state of de­cline. That said, my feel­ing is that the suit will never quite die. But then I spent 16 years in the army—so I’m used to a uni­form.”

Mark Zucker­berg.

Steve Jobs.

Richard Bran­son in a suit at the launch of his scheme to tempt busi­nesspas­sen­gers to travel with Vir­gin At­lantic, 1984.

A suit as seen on a fe­male form dur­ing Bal­main Homme’s au­tumn/win­ter 2018 run­way show; a com­mon sight in fash­ion th­ese days.

Sav­ile Row, Lon­don— the world’s most fa­mous suit­ing street.

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